Apr. 22—AUBURN — The Maine Gladiators youth hockey organization is sending two teams to the Tier II USA Hockey National Championships next week.
The U19 Gladiators girls team will be heading to Denver, Colorado for the U19 Tier II tournament while the Gladiators 14U boys team will head to Dallas, Texas for the 14U Tier II tournament. Both tournaments run April 29-May 3.
The U19 team has been placed in the 2A Division. They will take on the North Shore Warhawks (Illinois) and Northern Michigan K-Stars (Michigan) in pool play. The 14U team was also placed in the 2A Division and will take on the Manchester Flames (New Hampshire) and Team South Dakota.
"It's going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to play in (the national tournament)," Gladiators 14U forward Timothy Ouellette said. "Doing it in COVID is something else."
Each team had to take a different path to the national championship tournament, in part because of the interstate hockey ban that ran from November to March. The girls team played less than a dozen games while the 14U team played well over 30.
Gladiators 14U coach Tom Metivier said they saw a lot of the Central Maine-area teams, including the Maine Nordiques, Maine Moose and Casco Bay 14U teams.
"We were lucky, we had some weekends where we played quite a few games in a tournament we had (at Norway Savings Bank Arena), that helped out," Metivier said. "We had the state tournament, that gave us some more games. We kind of self-scheduled a season. We played the Nordiques quite a few times and we played the team in Augusta, the Maine Moose, and we played a couple of Casco Bay teams. We tried to fill our schedule and get the boys to play some hockey."
For the girls team, they scrambled to play 11 regular-season games — mostly against the Casco Bay U19 and 16U teams and the Gladiators 16U team — because it's a split-season team, meaning they play before and after the high school season.
When games weren't being played because of the community sports requirements, the players worked hard to stay in shape.
"The Gladiators organization did an unbelievable job, they gave us all the practice time and we stayed within the COVID restrictions," 19U girls coach Keith Pomerleau said. "At one point, we could only do skills, we couldn't compete or anything and they all showed up and they worked hard no matter what type of practice we had."
Pomerleau said each practice had at least 90% of the roster showing up.
The girls team was able to only play four games when youth hockey got shut down, and when the community sports requirements allowed games to be played was around the same time the high school season began. The Gladiators have girls that play for Lewiston, Edward Little/Leavitt/Poland, St. Dom's, Messalonskee, Brunswick, Hebron Academy and North Yarmouth Academy.
After the high school season ended, the girls reconvened as a team to finish their season and get to the 11-game minimum to be eligible for the New England regional tournament.
"I think we played four games then the high school season started," forward Leah Landry said. "There was a break until after (the high school season) ends and that's like when our season really started. We weren't able to practice during the high school season."
They reached the 11-game threshold and defeated the Casco Bay U19 girls team in a two-game sweep in the best-of-three series to capture the Maine Amateur Hockey Association's state championship.
Goalie Lauren Power, who plays at NYA, had a big postseason run. She earned two, 4-0 shutouts in the state championship series against Casco Bay and only allowed five goals in four games at the New England regional, as the team went 3-0-1 to capture the New England championship in Newington, Connecticut, April 9-11.
"She was huge, especially in the regionals," Gladiators forward Caroline Tracey said. "If we had a different goalie, we might not have won because the other teams got a lot of shots but, luckily she saved almost all of them."
The 14U boys team, meanwhile, is a full-season team and doesn't stop play during the high school season, even though a good chunk of the roster are freshmen in high school. The team has players from Lewiston, Edward Little, St. Dom's and Poland/Leavitt/Oak Hill/Gray-New Gloucester who either played varsity or junior varsity for their respective high school teams.
Metivier said they worked with the local high schools to make sure there wasn't too much of an overlap between the 14U schedule and the high school schedule.
The 14U team thought it could make nationals from the start of the season.
"As soon as we found out our team, we knew our goal and we knew we could make it to the national tournament," forward Peyton Dyer said. "We knew we had to win states and we could do it. ... It's a very special group and I think we can do something special down there (in Dallas)."
Unlike the U19 girls division, the 14U boys division has no regional tournament so the state champion heads to nationals. The boys had a battle with the Maine Junior Black Bears for the MEAHA state crown.
The series went all three games, and for the final game of the series on March 26 friends and family were able to watch as the indoor capacity limits opened up.
"In game three in that state tournament, to have fans, I feel like that really got us going," Dyer said. "We were excited to have fans and that got us going."
Players on both teams have grown up playing with each other.
"A lot of us, we have been playing since we were little kids since we have been (nine, 10 years old), it's just a thing, we just click," Ouellette said. "Ever since we were kids, we have done stuff together."
Some members of the girls team were members of the 16U Gladiators team that went to nationals in 2019. Two years ago, the Gladiators couldn't get out of pool play. They hope they can advance further this time around.
"I think to win a few games and get further in the tournament than we did last time," Landry said. "We didn't make it to any semifinals or finals. So, I think making it to the semifinals or the final game would be cool."
Landry said it was a cool experience two years ago to see teams from different states and the skill level they brought.
In a year with no playoffs at the high school level, going to nationals fills that void. For Tracey, a senior at Edward Little, the nationals could be the last competitive hockey games she plays and she's going to enjoy the experience.
"Very much because I probably won't play in any other tournaments after this," Tracey said. "It's my senior year and it's my last year playing. After nationals, I don't have a lot of hockey after that besides college possibly and I am unsure if I am going to play there."